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I'd like some advice on giving an academic job talk.
September 4, 2009 2:18 AM   Subscribe

I'd like some advice on giving an academic job talk.

I have a job interview coming up. It's a mid-level academic position (Research Scientist) at a prestigious research institute in Germany. I've been invited to visit the institute, meet potential future colleagues, and give a 30-60min long talk which will be open to everyone at the institute. This will be followed by a more formal interview, with a small panel. Then of course there's lunch, and dinner, with the bigwigs...

- What advice can you give me as to the content of the talk?
- Should I concentrate on what I have done in the past, or what I'd like to do in the future?
- I've done quite a variety of research in the past, so should I go narrow and deep and concentrate on one particular aspect, or go wide and shallow, and try to fit everything in?

Other pertinent info: the field is evolution; I've never been to Germany before; the working language of the institute is English.
posted by jonesor to Work & Money (11 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
Learn what you can about the research interests of the department, and try to tailor your presentation to those interests. Your CV will probably already mention work you've done which is not relevant, it's okay to touch on these in a presentation, but not to dwell on them. You don't want to look like you don't have a clear focus. Both too narrow and too wide are to be avoided, if it's going to be open to the entire institute, it needs to be accessible.

If you have recently given a talk at a conference, this can be a good template for your presentation, with the addition of some more details about your future plans and other relevant interests.

Show both work you have done and work you would like to do, but again, keep it focussed on what they specialise in, and make sure it doesn't vary too wildly from what you've presented about past work. It would be great if these complement what other people are already doing. Odds are high you will be asked more about future research plans in the followup interview.

Generally speaking you shouldn't go on about your non-work life too much in the presentation. I've seen applicants do this, but the lunch and dinner would be where people get to find out about your personality. A high-action shot of you kayaking in some dangerous gorge, for instance, probably wouldn't have the impact you imagine.
posted by Cuppatea at 2:28 AM on September 4, 2009


What advice can you give me as to the content of the talk?

Tell them about the most interesting thing you've researched that you're passionate about (and tell them that you're passionate). Teach them something useful. Organize your talk into (via Jean-Luc Doumont):

1. Context
2. Need
3. Task
4. Findings
5. Conclusions
6. Perspective

Don't skip any of these! Most researchers concentrate on the task, since it occupied so much of their time. Meanwhile, the audience is dying to know the context, need, and perspective/implications.

(Incidentally, in my experience German scientists and engineers will show they're engaged by asking very blunt questions that might be interpreted as negative by Americans.)

Have a message for each slide, a complete sentence, and use it as the title for each slide. Everything on the slide that isn't this message is a distraction (e.g., unreadable charts, logos, bullet-pointed sentence fragments, and long blocks of text). Use ample images and analogies, but keep the slides spare. Stick to a few key messages; the details are available in your papers.

Should I concentrate on what I have done in the past, or what I'd like to do in the future?

Talk is cheap. (As far as the presentation goes. Save the research plan for the panel, who will be eager to hear it if you've shown during the presentation that you can identify, study, solve, and explain research problems effectively.)

I've done quite a variety of research in the past, so should I go narrow and deep and concentrate on one particular aspect, or go wide and shallow, and try to fit everything in?

Do you want to confuse people with a dozen topics? Your CV is evidence of your scope. During the presentation, convince them of your passion.
posted by Mapes at 4:24 AM on September 4, 2009 [7 favorites]


From your description, I'm guessing Max Planck, right? I've got some friends there.

German academic culture is quite different from American academic culture, even where they are fully aware of American norms. I'd actually say to go easy on the "passion," relative to giving a job talk in an American university department. Give a very *tight* paper, one with clear structure and one that demonstrates your competence in core skills.

Old advice good in any job interview setting: let your hosts order drinks first at dinner. Do what they do.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:24 AM on September 4, 2009


Everybody in science has worked on many topics. I've seen two approaches to this:

1. Two or three projects with an explanation as to what you see as the connecting theme.

2. The one project that makes the best story, with maybe a sidenote about what else you've done and "I'll be happy to talk about that when time permits".

Number one seems to work best when your connecting theme isn't total B.S. Number two works best when you have one project that's a real stand-out and makes a good narrative.
posted by Dr.Enormous at 6:03 AM on September 4, 2009


(Incidentally, in my experience German scientists and engineers will show they're engaged by asking very blunt questions that might be interpreted as negative by Americans.)

I have friends at one of the MP institutes, and this is true in my experiences with them. Anticipating these questions, keeping a level head and not deferring answers ("Uhhh... That would make a nice future research topic") will keep you looking good.

fourcheesemac has the right idea about "passion" -- do *NOT* get emotional. Be clear, tight, and spare, show where and how your work is elegant. I swear, only in the US does showing your emotional involvement score you points. Everywhere else, it looks like a grab, immature and unnecessary. Why do you need to have passion when your work is elegant and well-made?

Don't show a dozen research topics. Pick one which you researched with elegance, or one with a finding that is relevant to their work. If it has both, great.

I probably don't need to tell you this, but be sure you've paid attention to detail. All figures need error bars, etc. I am only a student, but I've now seen a dozen job talks given as colloquia and I'm sick to death of lies by omission and sloppy, mislabeled figures.
posted by fake at 6:04 AM on September 4, 2009


Nth-ing the idea to be prepared for a very detail-oriented German approach, and ready to accept fairly harsh questions as a sign of positive interest.

About your topics, I'd say your best approach is avoid talking about plans, and to focus on things you've done (with maybe a "and it would be fascinating to try applying this technique to X if I had the opportunity" side comment, no more than a sentance.) You've got several topics to choose from, you say.
Do you have any sense from phone interviews, (etc.) what it was about your background that made your cv stand out to them? Talk about that.
Can you get a sense for what somebody with your background would be researching in their organization? Talk about the topic that is most relevant to that.
Do you know what other scientists there are working on, or if it's more industry-focused, what they used to work on when they were purely academics? Talk about stuff related to that.
Right, so that's three topics. Pick one. Or pick two. More than two gets iffy. If you're doing more than one topic, a key approach is to find the thing that joins them together. Is it similar ideas applied to vastly different systems? Is it different types of spectroscopy? Are they both energy measurements that you could reasonably call a "temperature"? Find some sort of similarity, and riff on that.

My most successful talks have been pitched at a simpler level than my first instinct was. Unlike in the department you're coming out of, your interviewers haven't been hearing everyone in your research group use those keywords for the last few years. You will want to talk about big heavy science things and impress the crap out of them with your scientific brilliance. If you do not work very hard on the basics and talk very plainly for the first 20 minutes, you will be lucky if one person in the audience is still following you when you get to the "brilliant!" part. Conveying an understanding of the meaning of your result and the idea of how you did it is more important than showing extra pieces of the setup or the error analysis or correction techniques, or the special case where you have to change X or anything aimed at convincing them that you did something very difficult. Now I'll back off on that statement a bit, and say that although I've worked with Germans in the US, I've never given talks outside of America; it's possible that there's a different line of being "talked down to" or a different expectation of what goes into a talk.... you may be more familiar with that than I am. However, it's fairly universal that reminding people of something they already know makes them feel smart; the key is to follow that up with something they didn't know but can now understand, and make them appreciate that you're smart, too.

So in summary, pick a project that you did a good job with, that will interest your audience, and that you can cover thoroughly in your time slot. Start at the very beginning, and present it very clearly. Make your topic look like something worth knowing about, but think of your research as cake you want to share, not a prize you want to show off (I'd be open to correction that this wouldn't fly as well in Germany, but keep this in mind for your non-German talks). Be sure your figures and phrasings are exactly right, because small errors set you up to be publicly corrected (it's the German way).
posted by aimedwander at 7:02 AM on September 4, 2009


Some excellent advice here - http://www.cs.berkeley.edu/~jrs/speaking.html
posted by AnandV at 9:33 AM on September 4, 2009


- I've done quite a variety of research in the past, so should I go narrow and deep and concentrate on one particular aspect, or go wide and shallow, and try to fit everything in?

I'm in a different field, but have always understood an academic job talk to be a chance to basically give a paper to people interested in hiring you. They get a chance to see your work, and you have a focus for discussion. This is, admittedly, from a POV where many of my peers are applying for teaching positions, but not exclusively. If it's more research oriented, you give a more high-level paper, perhaps something out of your dissertation, whereas if it's more intro-teaching, you give something with broader appeal - but still a specific topic.

Do you have an advisor of some sort who can confirm the norms of your field?
posted by mdn at 10:35 AM on September 4, 2009


Make sure that your preparation for the actual talk doesn't lead you to prepare less for the Q & A. I can speak from experience that the Q & A, as a demonstration of your ability to think on your feet, and a deeper indicator of how firm your grasp is on the field and your topic, often makes or breaks a job interview.

Anticipate the most likely questions, and prepare for them. Also be ready for questions that come completely out of left field. If you can get colleagues or friends to realistically role-play the scenario, it could help give you a sense of what you're up against.
posted by umbú at 11:25 AM on September 5, 2009


Thanks all - I got the job. Woohoo!
posted by jonesor at 2:44 PM on November 1, 2009


Congratulations, jonesor. I'm glad it worked out. That's great news.
posted by umbú at 8:35 AM on November 2, 2009


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